When Andy Bergey and Tom Eldridge tune in Boulder's Community Access Television, also known as Channel 54, they see two very different things.
Bergey, CATV's executive director, emphasizes the outlet's noble purpose. "It's a way for the public to communicate with the government and other citizens in the community," he says. "To me, that's freedom of speech at its most basic level."
In contrast, Eldridge, Boulder's deputy mayor and a member of the city council, feels that Channel 54 is generally unwatchable for reasons that have nothing to do with content. "The quality of most programs that come on isn't very good," he maintains. "Sometimes the sound is way too low or the lighting is irregular. It usually looks and sounds so poor that I don't stay around long enough to see what it is."
Factor in Boulder's present economic crunch, and it's no wonder that the $226,000 earmarked for CATV in calendar year 2003 strikes Eldridge as excessive. In his view, severely cutting this amount wouldn't constitute "an issue of free speech. It's an issue of whether we should keep funding a platform for a very small group of people" -- among them Jann Scott, a hyperkinetic troll of a personality whose bizarre take on information programming epitomizes Channel 54 in the minds of many Boulder viewers.
Scott takes umbrage at such implicit criticism -- and pretty much everything else. He dismisses Eldridge, the longtime owner of the landmark Boulder restaurant Tom's Tavern, as "Councilman Hamburger" and indicates that any attempt to pull the plug on CATV will prompt unpleasantness on an epic scale. "What's wrong with these people?" Scott bays, his hyperbole knob set at eleven. "Do they want a jihad?"
Apparently not. During an October 7 session, the Boulder City Council, including Eldridge, tentatively extended Channel 54's stipend through July 1, 2004, during the first reading of a proposed $184 million budget. Approval for this move is expected during the next council meeting, on October 21, but CATV will have to make additional compromises in order to survive long-term. Over the next several months, Bergey and a recently created committee must conduct cost-benefit studies of three plans to consolidate CATV with Boulder's municipal station, Channel 8, which specializes in broadcasts of public meetings and the like. The result will almost certainly lead to a reduction in staff, resources and programming -- and if the local economy remains in the dumper, matters could get uglier down the line.
CATV is hardly the only station of its type to experience such cutbacks. Denver Community Television has had less cash to work with each year since 2000, and Mark Bussinger, DCTV's chairman of the board, says other outlets are facing comparable challenges. "Public-access centers all over the country are looking at new models of funding, and so are we," he allows. "Because at both cable companies and cities, there's a trend toward less funding for public access nationwide."
It wasn't always so. In 1996, when CATV was born, dough was fairly plentiful, in part because of the pact between Boulder and Telecommunications Inc. (TCI), which served as the city's cable supplier. "At first," Bergey says, "the city council was getting three percent of the franchise fee, but they wanted leverage to increase that amount to five percent. To do that, they told folks who subscribed to cable that the reason the bill was going up from 3 percent to 5 percent was to pay for public access. That's how we received 2 percent funding from 1996 to 2000."
A shakeup followed, with TCI giving way to AT&T and then to Comcast, Boulder's current franchise holder. As part of this process, the cable contract was rewritten to give city representatives more leeway to use the attendant windfall however they saw fit. Jana Petersen, Boulder's executive director of administrative services, says that a "pass-through fee" producing about $130,000 per annum must be split between channels 8 and 54. Otherwise, "the revenues from Comcast go directly into the city's general fund, and they aren't dedicated to a specific function."
In 2003, convenient pools of loot like this one are in short supply. Boulder's $85 million general fund, which covers services such as the police and fire departments, libraries, and parks and recreation, faced a shortfall of approximately $14.1 million, Petersen says. Rather than recommend lopping around 20 percent from the budgets of every sector of government, she continues, Boulder City Manager Frank Bruno and councilmembers "asked departments to present reduction plans of as much as 30 percent or more. It was not a salami-slicing approach. We wanted to preserve essential services." In this spirit, the budget for the public affairs and communications division that employs Petersen was to shrink by 38 percent as opposed to 5 percent for the fire department.
Even so, the fire department's suggested cuts were painful; the posts of several wildfire specialists and two employees assigned to the rescue squad were slated to be slashed. Eldridge and fellow councilman Gordon Riggle believed that this blow could have been softened if the city reallocated most of CATV's funding to the firefighters. "The total would completely restore the rescue squad," Riggle says. The idea was bolstered by a 2003 random survey of Boulder voters, who were given a list of budget items and asked which should be treated as the highest priorities. Of the 800 or so individuals who responded to a mailing sent to 3,000 residents, the majority made fire protection the top choice. Channels 8 and 54 finished dead last.
To Bergey, this comparison lacked a scientific underpinning and anything resembling logic. "We shouldn't be compared to police and fire, because everybody wants their house protected," he says. "It's throwing out the baby with the bathwater." Yet the survey's conclusions made perfect sense to Eldridge, who publicly floated the notion of shifting CATV's funds to the fire department in July.
Afterward, Scott went predictably ballistic. For an August 1 article, he told Boulder Daily Camera reporter Greg Avery that CATV producers would "burn down City Hall. That'll be the first fire they'll have to put out." (He was joking, he insists.) Three days later, the Camera published an editorial declaring that fire service was more important than CATV, thereby earning another dash of Scott's wrath. In a subsequent edition of Jann Scott Live, his signature production, "we had a guy dressed in a Nazi officer's uniform who we called 'Clint Taliban' [named for Camera columnist Clint Talbott] and another guy dressed like Schultz from Hogan's Heroes," Scott crows. "He had a Nazi helmet and an infantryman outfit, and we called him the 'city Nazi liaison.' And for an hour they beat me up, saying, 'You don't need free speech. All you need is the government channel, and we'll tell you everything.'"
For his part, Bergey reacted to the Eldridge proposal with less hysteria and more pragmatism. He's credited with coming up with the consolidation concept, working closely with a committee that includes Petersen and selling city manager Bruno on the strategy despite a steady flow of unflattering press coverage. Typical was a September 14 Daily Camera column by Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, who stated that anyone who has seen footage on channels 8 or 54 probably caught it "by accident....Yes, almost no one watches these channels."
Councilman Riggle offers a variation on this assertion. "Through the entire CATV discussion, all the people who spoke were people who go to the studio and produce TV," he says. "I don't recall ever having someone from the home audience come in and say, 'I love CATV. It meets my needs. Please fund it.'" He supports the equivalent of a ratings study to determine "if anybody is really out there."
CATV producers counter that they have plenty of aficionados. Mike Behr, who co-hosts The Sports Connection with partner Steve Henry, notes that their program, which airs live at 8 p.m. Wednesdays, is formatted to let viewers phone in, and many do so in order to speak with members of the Boulder athletic universe. Over the three and a half years that the show's been on, guests have included everyone from little leaguers to big-name footballers: CU Buffs running back Chris Brown, departed QB Craig Ochs, linebacker Jashon Sykes (now with the Denver Broncos) and Wayne Lucier, who starts at center for the New York Giants this season. "The hardcore fans get to ask them questions, and so do kids," Behr says. "That's one of our real strengths." Indeed, The Sports Connection is the only show of its type to originate from Boulder, and it's put together by a sprawling volunteer crew headed by producer Amy Nigrini, a veteran of KOA and KTLK.
Other shows with built-in viewership emerge from Boulder High School, which produces a two-hour programming block that debuts at 5 p.m. Saturdays and airs three more times on Sundays. Jim Kavanagh, who teaches video production, communications and tenth-grade English at Boulder High, oversees student efforts, which can include "avant-garde music videos by student bands or films that the kids make, coverage of pep rallies, sporting events, guest lectures, the World Affairs Conference," he says. Not only does Kavanagh believe the shows are "a great way for parents to connect with the world of Boulder High School," but he's seen the expertise students have gleaned through these hands-on activities lead to bigger things: "Last year we had three kids get into New York University film school, and one got into the University of Southern California film school -- and it should be similar this year."
The vocational opportunities afforded to just plain Boulder residents are another of Channel 54's selling points. "We have over 170 producers, and most of them learned how to make television right here," Bergey says. "Part of what we do is hold classes and train people on equipment. It's a great vocational opportunity for folks who can go on and get jobs in the industry."
Fine and dandy, replies Riggle, but that doesn't explain to him why the city should be paying for citizens to pick up a given skill set. "Is CATV about viewers and a home audience, or is CATV about providing a facility where people who want to work in TV can develop their abilities?" he asks. "And if it's about providing TV studios for would-be producers," he continues in a facetious tone, "I can imagine a whole host of recreational or vocational facilities that maybe we ought to provide. Woodworking. Ceramics. Equestrian events."
Some in Boulder think there's a distinction between public-access broadcasting and steeplechase racing. In early September, Barry Satlow, who heads Boulder's branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (and, more than two decades ago, contributed to Westword), wrote a letter to the city council on behalf of his organization. In it, he argued for support of CATV. Satlow doesn't watch Channel 54 very often, because, he says, "I've got HBO," and he concedes that a funding cessation might not be actionable. Yet "we urged them to keep it open as a public forum," he says. "There's nothing else like it in the Boulder area, and in these days of media concentration, it's important to keep additional voices, even if they're annoying -- like Jann Scott."
Katy McNeill expressed this same message in more of a hands-on way. A videographer who received her training at CATV, she wants to make sure that others in Boulder receive the opportunity, too. "It's a great means of expression, especially for the young people of our community, and I think their voices don't always get heard," she says. To that end, she started circulating a "Public Access and Free Speech Petition" that placed possible funding elimination in a national context: "In the midst of the Federal Communications Commission consolidations that inhibit sincere and representative media, we can emerge as a community that provides a safe haven for free speech," its introductory paragraph declared. McNeill eventually gathered approximately 500 signatures.
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This document and the sizable pro-CATV turnout at the October 7 city council meeting helped sway the majority of elected representatives. Eldridge was the only person to turn thumbs down on the budget as a whole, saying it didn't go far enough. (For example, there's still no money to keep the imperiled firefighters, although the council is expected to back a ballot issue asking Boulderites to extend a tax slated to expire at the end of 2004 that would save their posts.) Riggle, meanwhile, was alone in voting against the six-month subsidy extension for Channel 54. "I would have supported a three-month extension," Riggle reveals. "They say they need time to study a merger, but they've already been studying it for three months and there's three months left in the year, so why do they need another six on top of that? It's not that complicated."
Figuring out how to keep public access alive in an age of reduced governmental largesse certainly is. Eldridge and Riggle both say they fault CATV for not doing more fundraising of its own, particularly since a clause in the 2002 agreement directed the station to raise $25,000. Through events like the annual Boulder Community Media Awards, Channel 54 scraped together a mere $9,000, and Bergey understands that upping this amount will be a struggle. According to him, "It's hard to be successful at a time when no one's successful at raising money. And we don't have anyone on our board or staff with any expertise in fundraising or grant writing."
DCTV does now; a professional fundraiser was hired out of necessity. As board chairman Bussinger acknowledges, this year's budget, which is in the $500,000 range, is down about ten percent from the previous year. To save simoleons, DCTV shrank its staff by two fulltime positions and now shuts its doors one extra day a week. "I'm sure there'll be fewer hours of programming, too," Bussinger says. "We just don't know how many. The producers are trying to pack more into fewer days." To prevent further slides, "we're planning some event fundraising and looking at a number of creative solutions to see what we can do about diversifying our revenue sources."
Another sort of diversity fuels Bergey's passion to keep CATV alive. "We're the most diverse channel out there, because anybody can get on. We have no agenda, no programming committee that decides what we play. We really are a reflection of the community -- and we hope the community appreciates that."